‘This need for abstraction and for symbols is a characteristic sign of that intensity and rapidity with which life is lived today… Things possess neither integral form nor individual outlines. Our perception bestows on objects boundaries in space, and these boundaries are the outcome of the multiple influences of remembrance, of ambience, and of emotion’
(G. Severini, “Introduction” in The Futurist Painter Severini exhibits his latest works, exh. cat., London, 1913, in M. Drudi Gambillo & T. Forti, Archivi del Futurismo, Rome, 1958, p. 113)
Painted circa 1957, Danseuse presents one of the central motifs of Gino Severini’s oeuvre: dance. The dancer occupied a principle position in Severini’s art during his Futurist years in Paris. Many years later, in 1950, Severini’s daughter was training to be a ballet dancer and he began to draw her pirouettes, enchanted once more by the sense of rhythmic movement of the figure in motion. From this year onwards, Severini returned to the theme of dance, painting a series of abstract works, such as Danseuse, which depicts not the figure of the dancer herself, but instead conveys a sense of dynamism and movement with a profusion of fragmented facets of colour. The 1950s were a period of reflection and re-evaluation for Severini, as he looked back to his earlier Futurist work, revisiting the same themes and subjects in colourful and exultant works that demonstrate his lifelong love of painting. On a large and impressive scale, in Danseuse, Severini has saturated the canvas entirely with daubs of vibrant paint, immersing the viewer in this dazzling, centrifugal whirl of prismatic colour.
Severini had first depicted dancing figures when he was living and working in Paris in 1911. More than his Futurist peers, the Italian artist associated dynamism not solely with the innovations of modern machines and new technology, but also with the urban spectacle of the cosmopolitan metropolis: the frenetic and pulsating vibrancy of modern life that could be found particularly in the bars, cafés, cabarets and music halls of the French capital. Under dazzling electric spotlights, dancers performed the latest, fashionable styles of dance – such as the Argentine tango, Cake Walk and Bear dance – to packed audiences of nocturnal revellers; a riotous frenzy of movement, rhythm and noise that enthralled Severini, serving as a visual encapsulation of dynamism and simultaneity, and of modernity itself. Severini depicted these dancers in an increasingly abstracted style, breaking the figure and its setting down into an array of interpenetrating volumes and lines, with just-legible signs and symbols: the elaborate folds of a dancer’s swirling skirt, a glimmer of a hair decoration, or the black trousers of her male partner. He recalled this spectacle, writing, ‘There were also the can-can dancers who rushed in with their quadrilles after every two regular dances. They seemed dressed like all the other women until they raised their skirts during their dance. When caught under bright spotlights, all you could see was a blur of contrasting blacks and whites, a splendour of greys in a whole range of purples, greens and blues’ (Severini, The Life of a Painter, New Jersey, 1983, p. 54).
From around 1913, Severini left all vestiges of representation behind and instead sought to convey the sensory impression of movement and dance – sounds, odours, light, colours and speed – through an abstract vision of colour, line and form. He wanted to convey not a representational illustration of the dancer, but instead capture the non-visual aspects of the scene: the rhythms, impulses and movements and the spectator’s own experience of the performer. ‘I believe’, the artist wrote, ‘that every sensation may be rendered in the plastic manner. Noise and sounds enter into the element, “ambience”, and may be translated through forms. The word “ambience” implies the word “atmosphere”. We render plastically the displacement of a body in atmosphere as well as that atmosphere itself’ (G. Severini, “Introduction” in The Futurist Painter Severini exhibits his latest works, exh. cat., London, 1913, in M. Drudi Gambillo and T. Forti, Archivi del Futurismo, Rome, 1958, p. 115); concepts which he elucidated a year later in his 1914 manifesto, Plastic Analogies of Dynamism: Futurist Manifesto. It is to this abstract vision of dance that Severini returned later in his career, as exemplified by Danseuse. A sense of frenzied movement emanates from the painting. The geometric, angular facets are denser and more complex in the centre of the composition, with the black fragments evoking the mass of the dancing figure, while the diagonal lines that radiate from the centre of the composition heightens the thrusting force and speed that dominates the painting.
Each facet of the painting is filled with individual daubs of colour, reminiscent of the Neo-Impressionist style that Georges Seurat and Paul Signac had pioneered at the end of the 19th Century. Severini deeply admired Seurat, and found in this scientific and methodical application of colour, a means of attaining the abstract sensation of incessant movement; he recalled, ‘I thought that the Neo-Impressionist technique considered in the broad sense in which I interpreted it, extended to form, would allow me to achieve effects of movement, never yet attempted, and a more pronounced lyricism’ (Severini, op. cit., p. 54). The staccato dots of radiant, jewel-like colour in the present work create a glittering effect that radiates out from the centre of the composition, creating a visual sense of dynamism and flux. Severini stated: ‘I would like my colours to be diamonds and to be able to make abundant use of them in my pictures so as to make them gleam with light and richness’ (Severini quoted in D. Fonti, Gino Severini, The Dance 1909-1916, exh. cat., Venice, 2001, p. 15). Sparkling on the canvas, the facets of radiant colour in Danseuse seem to evoke the electric lights under which the dancer is performing, her arms and legs moving in an effervescent and dynamic whirl of colour and form in this abstract vision of dance.